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The history of slavery is a local - as well as a global - issue

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By researching records of slave owners in her locality, Dr. Julia Prest, Reader in Early Modern French at the University of St Andrews, uncovers links that are close to home. Here, she explains why knowing and remembering these facts is important to our understanding of the reality of Britain's historical connection to the enslavement of African people.

IMAGE: Thanks to the University of St Andrews Library, Special Collections, GPS-Melville-JW-1

The majority of us have a general understanding of the transatlantic slave trade as an integral part of British history. But how much do the people of Britain know about the history and legacy of slavery in our local communities, even our families?  Those living in the major cities associated with the daily business of the slave trade (e.g. Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and London) doubtless know more than most.  But what about those of us who live in smaller communities? Do our localities have no links to the transatlantic slave trade? It’s unlikely. 

My adopted home is the fairly remote coastal town of St Andrews in Fife, Scotland.  Fife is not known for its racial diversity, or for its involvement with the slave trade.  However, it didn’t take much digging to unearth some interesting facts and there are doubtless many more to uncover. 

I began by searching the Legacies of British Slave-ownership database, which documents payments made to slave owners as ‘compensation' when slavery was abolished in the British Caribbean, Mauritius and the Cape in 1833, and the history of their estates back to c1763.  A search for ‘St Andrews’ brought up the names and addresses of three individuals who were compensated for the formerly enslaved people on their estates in British Guiana, Dominica and Tobago. 

One of the slave owners lived at 139 Market Street, a site in the centre of our small town currently occupied by the clothing retailer H&M (a company that has been the object of several allegations of modern slavery). The name of another, John Whyte Melville (or Whyte-Melville), was vaguely familiar.  The LBS database informed me that Whyte Melville’s portrait – by Sir Francis Grant (President of the Royal Academy) – is owned and displayed by the famous Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St Andrews, of which he was captain for many years, and that a sketch of him is owned by my own employer, the University of St Andrews.

While looking for the sketch, which portrays a benign-looking octogenarian enjoying a drink after a couple of rounds of golf in characteristically inclement weather, I came across some papers in our library’s Special Collections featuring the Whyte Melville family.  In the online catalogue there was a brief biographical outline of Whyte Melville, but no mention of any involvement with overseas estates worked by enslaved people.  I wrote to a colleague in Special Collections asking if the biography could be updated to include the fact that Whyte Melville received compensation for 131 enslaved people on his Dominica estate in 1835.  Two hours later, this had been done.  It’s not enough, but it’s a start, and we are now on the lookout for more examples that require updating. 

I then took a look even closer to home by typing my not-very-common family name into the LBS database.  As I held my breath, two results appeared for men (who share first and second names with members of my immediate family) who were compensated for one enslaved person on an estate in Trinidad and five enslaved people on two different estates in St Vincent respectively.  I did not find any plantation owners, but still, people from whom I am possibly descended owned slaves.  And were ‘compensated’ for the loss of them. 

There are some more uplifting facts to uncover too. My investigations led me to the story of an enslaved African man called David Spens or Spence (formerly known as ‘Black Tom’) who was brought from Grenada to Fife by his owner, Dr David Dalrymple. David Spens then claimed his freedom following his baptism in a church in Wemyss in 1769, and refused to return to the West Indies.  In the course of the legal wrangle that ensued, Spens received financial and practical support from a number of local individuals and groups including, it is believed, the Fife salters and colliers.  The support of the impoverished local miners is of particular interest as they were themselves in a state of bondage to their masters until the system was supposedly phased out from 1775, but not fully abolished until 1799.  It would seem that their support was born of a sense of localised class-based, cross-racial solidarity. 

What exactly we are to do with the material legacies of slave owners - including their portraits and statues, and the buildings financed directly or indirectly by slave labour - is a matter for ongoing debate.  But what we do with any newly uncovered or rediscovered facts about the legacy of slavery in our communities and families – be they uplifting, awkward or devastating – seems much clearer. We must make those facts known, in print, online, in our classrooms and our daily conversations. 

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